After two crashes of Boeing 737 jets in just five months, it’s hard not to wonder, why did Boeing resist efforts to ground the jets? We could have avoided much of the turmoil had the companies’ leaders done a better job of framing the situation. Leaders have one crucial task at the start of a disaster-in-the-making, and that is to use the art of framing to describe the nature of the problem the organization is facing. Frames shape the way we think about problems (and also opportunities). They tell us what category of problem we are dealing with, and because they identify a type of problem, they also contain the seeds of action and response. So what could Boeing have said? A better frame would be: This is a technical problem that we do not fully understand. In light of that uncertainty, we are grounding the 737 Max 8s and 9s until we can be sure we know what is causing these crashes, and can satisfy ourselves and all of the global regulators that the plane is safe to fly again.
As all of us watch, shocked by the human consequences of two crashes of Boeing 737 Max jets in just five months, it’s hard not to wonder, why did Boeing resist efforts to ground the jets? And what about Southwest Airlines and American Airlines, two U.S. carriers that continued to fly them until President Trump announced the planes were to be grounded — reversing an earlier decision by the Federal Aviation Administration?
Moments like these are a trial by fire for leaders. It is not yet clear why the second jet, an Ethiopian Airlines flight, crashed on Sunday, March 10. Regulators have been split, with those in Asia and Europe moving relatively quickly to ground 737 Max 8 jets, while in the U.S. the FAA maintained its “review shows no systematic performance issues and provides no basis to order grounding the aircraft.” Politicians weighed in, and Dennis Muilenburg, CEO of Boeing, called President Trump to reassure him about the safety of the company’s planes following a presidential tweet complaining that airplanes were becoming too complex: “I don’t want Albert Einstein to be my pilot,” Trump wrote. By Wednesday, March 13, the New York Times reported more than 40 countries had grounded the jets.
All this confusion does no one any good — not the investors in the companies involved, not employees, and not passengers.
We could have avoided much of the turmoil had the company’s leaders done a better job of framing the situation. Leaders have one crucial task at the start of a disaster in the making, and that is to use the art of framing to describe the nature of the problem the organization is facing. Frames shape the way we think about problems (and also opportunities). They tell us what category of problem we are dealing with, and because they identify a type of problem, they also contain the seeds of action and response.
During the Tylenol poisoning crisis in 1982, Johnson & Johnson’s CEO at the time, James E. Burke, famously declared that it was a public health problem. That framing set in motion all the activities we now associate with J&J’s gold-standard reaction to a crisis in which human lives are at stake: recalling all bottles of Tylenol capsules — against the advice of the FDA; designing new tamper-resistant packaging; and delivering the newly packaged capsules in a period of six weeks. And when a second outbreak of poisoning occurred four years after the first, Burke went on national TV to declare that J&J would only offer Tylenol in caplets, which could not be pulled apart and resealed without consumers knowing about it. He publicly admitted he wished he had made that decision in the first place.
Burke could have described the nature of the Tylenol poisoning in many different ways: as an assault on the company, as a problem somewhere in the process of getting Tylenol from J&J factories to retail stores, as the actions of a lone killer.
And each of these framings would have led to a different set of actions. If Burke had called the poisoning an assault, he would have set off a costly and hard-to-win war against unknown outsiders trying to bring J&J down. If it was a process problem, there would have followed a painstaking review of the supply chain of Tylenol and possible flaws in the system. And if the work of a killer? Well, we all know how generalities like that can lead to inaction on the ground, and a blaming of systems far removed from the company and its responsibilities.
Boeing CEO Muilenburg is reported to have insisted to the president and others that the aircraft are safe. We heard about the training that is designed to help pilots identify and override the automatic controls on the plane if those controls are mistakenly guiding its nose down. So Muilenburg’s frame appears to be: This is a technical problem that we can correct with pilot training.
It’s a common enough frame for a product malfunction, but we still don’t know if the similarity in the two crashes is a coincidence or the sign of a systematic problem that needs to be corrected. Moreover, the frame seems to miss the point that hundreds of human lives have been lost, that more may be at risk, and that regulators in many countries have grounded the planes. Regulators’ actions reflect a frame of “prioritizing human safety,” which seems to better reflect the high levels of uncertainty and risk that Boeing is asking us to accept.
So what could Boeing have said? A better frame would be: This is a technical problem that we do not fully understand. In light of that uncertainty, we recommend grounding the 737 Max 8s and 9s until we can be sure we know what is causing these crashes, and can satisfy ourselves and all of the global regulators that the plane is safe to fly again.
That framing leads to a much clearer path of action, and acknowledges a partnership with regulators who are charged to protect human lives. And it would have been better for all concerned if Boeing had come to that conclusion before the president apparently did.
The main point here for leaders is you need to do the hard thinking first. You need to decide what kind of problem you are facing, and you need to describe it in clear language that will help the people who have to execute inside the company, as well as those who are judging it from the outside, understand how the company is thinking about the kind the problem they face. Framing is a tool to be used consciously. Done well, it can make an enormous difference in inspiring responsible action and trust in the judgment and values of the company, even if, as in the case of J&J, the problem turns out to not be totally solved, and needs to be addressed again.